Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Has The Bubble Burst?

That sound that you heard recently? Could it have been the Toronto Blue Jay bubble bursting?

The season is one hundred and sixty-two games, after all, so it is not time to make rash predictions. It had been a glorious season, up until a week or so ago. Fine young arms, timely hitting, great managerial decisions.

And then? A trip to Fenway was not exactly what the doctor ordered. Throw in a night with a knuckleballer named Wakefield, and you have part of the recipe for disaster.

Baseball in Boston can be intimidating for a young player. For that matter, we saw that it can also have an effect on veterans as well. The Green Monster, that legendary piece of metal that poses as a left field fence in Beantown, is part of the New England mystique. The carefully manicured carpet is suited to the home team.

Even the food that one encounters is different from the haute cuisine served along the north shore of Lake Ontario. Clam chowder, oysters on the half shell, Lobster Newburgh: all part of the Eastern Seabord diet.

Fenway is not terribly different from any other old stadium. It has its nooks and crannies on and off the field. Millions of dollars have been spent to dress the old girl up; however, what matters most is the game between the lines. And that is where the Blue Jays met their match in Massachusetts.

Intimidation. Pure and simple. Quiet smiles, a little arrogance. A couple of breaks. More than a few terrible ball and strike calls. The wheels fell off.

Having been swept, the Jays entered Atlanta somewhat demoralized. The Braves pounced on their prey, and also sent the Jays back on the road, winless. Yikes!

Two weeks ago, Cito Gaston and Gene Tenace were on a gigantic pedestal. I am sure they have recovered from their fall, but there is work to be done. The young arms worked well, but overstayed their welcome. The .300 batting averages have sunk considerably, and the malaise seems infectious.

With seven games gone on the wrong side of victory it is time to dig the tourniquet out of the duffle bag and stop the bleeding. Hopefully, the veteran arms that were down on the farm can supply enough innings to get the Jays over the hump.

Meanwhile, out on the frozen ponds, there is joy in Windsor. The Spitfires came from behind in a rather miraculous fashion to steal the Memorial Cup. Led by a variety of superstars, all hopefully destined for the NHL, another player stepped into a shot from the blue line to help seal the fate of the Kelowna Rockets. Robert Kwiet, a former Wellington Duke, scored the third goal for the Spits. Robert and I communicated throughout the playoffs via Facebook, and he was truly enjoying the experience.

Another former Duke is also having some fun in his area. Matt Cooke has played a significant role for the Pittsburgh Penguins this year, and will likely find himself in a Stanley Cup final in a week or so. “Cookie” continues to play his game against the Hurricanes, infuriating them to no end. When least expected, he also chips in with a goal and an assist here and there. Icing on the cake.

Daniel Cleary is on a very short list as one of the finest players ever to lace up the blades for the Belleville Bulls. He currently leads all players in the playoffs in the category known as “Plus-Minus”. Daniel has been on the ice for fifteen more goals than have been scored against, and he is therefore a + 15. He hoisted Lord Stanley’s mug last year in Newfoundland, the first native of that province ever to win the Cup.

I am certain it is on his agenda again for this June. He and his chums will have to dispose of the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar, and Marc-Andre Fleury before they can touch the hardware.

It should prove to be a great final. A good place to turn when the Jays get caught stealing!

James Hurst

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Darryl Sittler-Hockey Hall of Fame 1989

There is no tougher place to play professional hockey in the National Hockey League than in Toronto. It is the hub of hockey, has its most devoted fans, and its harshest critics.

The media in Hogtown can chew you up and spit you out, if you are not prepared mentally to take the heat. As is often the case, they are right exactly fifty percent of the time.

Searching back in my memory, the name Frank Mahovlich comes to mind. He began his NHL career as a Maple Leaf. He came to the Leafs via the St. Michael’s route, as did many other Buds at that time. The expectations on “The Big M” at that time were enormous, and he did not disappoint in his first year. He won the rookie of the year award, much to the disappointment of the Bobby Hull fans in the Quinte area.

But he ran into a thorny obstacle along the way which often jeopardized his career, and certainly his mental health. His name was Punch Imlach. Imlach ruled the Leafs with a despotic touch for several years, under the guise of his smiling patriarch, Harold Ballard.

As the 1970s began during the Ballard era, another star burst onto the scene in Toronto. Darryl Sittler had been groomed for three years with the London Knights, putting up respectable totals, as well as a surprising number of penalty minutes: he averaged one hundred minutes per year in London.

Sittler was the golden-haired boy who was supposed to lead the Leafs out of the doldrums to another victory parade down Yonge Street. He even wore Mahovlich’s number twenty-seven, and starred for the Leafs for twelve tumultuous years. Much to no avail, as Lord Stanley’s Mug never made it to Toronto during Sittler’s time.

Sittler recently spoke at a dinner in Belleville. Because of his wealth of knowledge about the game, and his own personal experiences, he is able to encapsulate the current state of the game in a few short words. “Of course players are more superior now. They eat better, they work harder. They are better coached.” He covered all of the highlights in his career. “My greatest thrill in hockey was scoring the overtime Cup-winning goal against the Czechs in the first Canada Cup.” (Sittler fans will recall, vividly how he faked a shot against the Czech goalie, Dzurilla, sent him sprawling, and fed the puck into the empty net.)

Many Leaf fans will never forget the night when Sittler scored six goals and added four assists in a game against the Boston Bruins in Toronto. A couple of other pretty fair players named Lemieux and Gretzky had eight point nights in their careers. No one has reached the nine point plateau, let alone ten.

He told how an aging Jean Beliveau beat him cleanly the first time they faced off. He spoke about his long-lasting relationship with linemate Lanny McDonald. They teamed with Errol Thompson on a dynamic line. Add Mike Palmateer, Borje Salming, and Ian Turnbull to the mix and you have a young and upcoming crew. Ballard brought in Imlach as GM in 1979, and all went awry.

Imlach drove Sittler crazy in Toronto, to the point where Darryl removed the “C” from his jersey that he had inherited from Dave Keon. Ballard defended Imlach, and called Sittler a cancer on the team.

Throughout his heyday in Toronto, Sittler and his wife Wendy worked tirelessly on community causes. Even after he finished his career with stops in Philadelphia and Detroit, he donated countless hours to the public good.

Seven years ago he lost his wife to cancer. Since that time, he has quietly, subtly, shared the message that many types of cancer can be prevented, and cured. His message was clear and firm. Get tested. For all of the men at the dinner, he strongly recommended a colonoscopy. It is a fairly simple procedure, and should be done every five years following your fiftieth birthday. Sittler said that if he could get one person from the group of one hundred to take the test, to be spared the ravages of cancer, that his time would have been well spent in Belleville.

He told me that he had played for a former Belleville McFarland player who coached him in London-“Bep”Guidolin. “Turk” Broda also coached him there. “In those days,” he said, “there was not a lot to coaching. It was a mater of opening and closing the door, and having a fine whiskey and a cigar after the game!”

When he was eight years old, his dad took him to an NHL exhibition game in Kitchener between the Rangers and the Black Hawks. After the game, he waited patiently and got the autographs of Andy Bathgate and Bobby Hull. He signed autographs for half an hour after dinner. He looked up after the line had dissipated, asked if there was anyone else, and quietly left the room.

As always, with class. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989.

James Hurst

Friday, May 08, 2009


Manny! Manny! Manny!

You should have stayed out of the cookie jar. Now that you have been caught, you will need forgiveness. And it will not come easy.

We know. We Canadians have a completely different perspective from our American neighbours. We experienced the pain of deceit from our athletic heroes way back in 1988. In Seoul, Korea, with Ben Johnson.

We had seen the handwriting on the wall with other Olympic athletes---weightlifters, wrestlers, perhaps some gymnasts and a few track and field types. But we did not expect that it would happen to us. Especially with a Canadian at the helm-Dr. Richard Pound. He was the drug watch dog at the Games, and he helped blow the whistle.

Apparently, not everyone heard the whistle. Rogers Clemens must have a bit of a hearing problem. Andy Pettite wasn’t listening. Alex Rodriguez failed to hear the noise. As you are no doubt aware, there were not very many players who played “clean”, absolutely clean, in the drug era that baseball had hoped that it had left behind.

Manny Ramirez has opened the door yet again. The frenzy is again stirring the waters. Many baseball players who really do not want to discuss the issue are facing a phalanx of microphones. The same questions, over and over again.

Players in Boston are being asked to comment on Manny’s behaviour! Most would be fairly safe by saying that Manny was a little bit different. Really?

Mike Lowell carefully put it this way: “He made a personal choice, and it was a wrong one.” David Ortiz struggled with the concept. Jonathan Papelbon simply let it be known that he and Manny were not the best of friends.

Johnny Damon, currently with the Yankees: “Manny is a pure and natural hitter. (I would beg to differ with the choice of the words “pure and natural”.) Hopefully, he serves his time and that’s it.” Probably not, Johnny.

Jake Peavey of the San Diego Padres went a little further in his analysis: “I’m happy. Baseball is serious about what they’re saying.”

And isn’t it about time?

They have taken all of the Manny hats off the shelves in Los Angeles. The bleachers will no longer be called “Mannywood”.

Really a tragedy for Manny, and for the game.

Last July, he quit on his teammates in Boston. He would not play. He would not run out ground balls. He was sent to Los Angeles. He announced, “I’m Back!”.

He helped the Dodgers march into the playoffs. He batted .396 after the trade, smashed many home runs, cruised along with an RBI almost every game. He then batted .520 in the playoffs. He owned Dodgertown. His charade about signing a contract was forgiven. The Dodgers were the only team to offer him a two year deal.

Yet again this year, he has helped the Dodgers burst out of the gate, with a six and one-half game lead through last Wednesday, the day the curtain fell.

And now he has to sit for fifty games. You will hear all of the fallout over the next couple of weeks. The name of the drug, the appeals, the denials, the usual apologies.

But it comes down to this: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx all hit five hundred home runs. They are the only players in the history of the game to have a higher life time batting average than Manny. Special company. For Manny, that is all history gone sour. Down the old toilet, old boy. So sorry.

Baseball will survive, but with another enormous asterisk.

James Hurst.
The Wellington Times.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


The Remote is Mine!

Last Monday night, there was a cornucopia of wonderful sporting events on the television screen. The choices were difficult; consequently, the remote was critical.

For my mind, the Stanley Cup playoff game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals deserved its top billing. But every once in a while I snuck a peek at the Blue Jays game to see how they were managing against the Cleveland Indians.

As has been the case so many times this year, the Jays’ game was a nail-biter. Unfortunately, the result of the extra inning game on Monday did not favour the Jays. They did come from behind, several times. They tied the game, they went ahead. They fell behind. In the end, the Indians had just enough in their tanks to outlast the Jays.

No matter. There are still more than one hundred and thirty games left in the season to compensate for one loss. Come late September, every win and loss is important. Up to this point in the season, the Jays have done remarkably well in the close contests. That is why they are in first place. There is a winning attitude on the Jays. There is no doubt that it starts from the top down. Much of it can be attributed to the leadership shown by the field manager, Cito Gaston.

A couple of years ago, two young hockey players were chosen at the top of the draft pool. There were high expectations for each. Right from the opening faceoffs in their careers, comparisons were made. As has been the case many times, young phenoms fail to reach those expectations; however, in the cases of Ovechkin and Crosbie, hockey fans have come out of the shuffle as the real winners.

With less than a minute remaining on Monday night, the Penguins trailed the Capitals by two goals. The Caps took a minor penalty, which is not all bad when the opposition has pulled the goalie. You can ice the puck without receiving an icing call. Therefore, you have a slightly better chance of getting an empty net goal. At least you can fire the puck down the ice without gaining the red line, and not be in fear of getting your head torn off by your coach.

Coaches do not appreciate icing calls in the dying seconds of a close game. Enough said.

The puck is somewhere near the Capitals net, which is being staunchly protected by a young Russian named Simeon Varlamov. He split his season between the Caps and their farm team, the Hershey Bears. How do we know that? Because he wears a schizophrenic mask, painted on one half with the Capitals insignia, and the Bears on the other. Always ready for a contest in either location!

Crosbie whacks at the puck four times, until he finally cracks it off Varlamov’s helmet, the Hershey side, into the net. More tension. Only one goal short. To no avail. The Capitals survive the attack to win their second game at home.

Regarding the tale of two phenoms? Both Crosbie and Ovechkin had three goals each. The Capitals faithful, in their sea of red shirts, fired more hats on the ice when Ovechkin scored than Carter has pills.

The series now swings over to Pittsburgh. There will be chaos.

Coach Bruce Boudreau patrols the bench for the Caps. At this stage in his life, he no more looks like a former hockey player than does Keiffer Sutherland, another difficult choice avoided Monday night. But he does know how to ice a pretty fine hockey team.

“Gabby” Boudreau set a junior scoring record in 1974-75 with the Toronto Marlies, racking up 165 points. He played 141 games in the NHL, and skated with more than a dozen pro teams. He initially signed with the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the WHA, but spent most of his first preseason with the Johnstown Jets. He had a bit part in the legendary hockey movie “Slap Shot”, and his apartment was used as Paul Newman’s in the movie.

Boudreau has put his faith in a rookie Russian goaltender who had only played six regular season games in the NHL. Up to this point, a well-founded faith.

Still plenty of excitement left in this year’s Cup finals. The Canucks and the Hawks are at war. The Ducks and the Red Wings will entertain. The ‘Canes skunked the Bruins in their last tilt to make that series interesting. Pass me the remote, thank you.

James Hurst

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